Miami in Sweet 16 for first time since 2000

AUSTIN, Texas — While one of the two Florida teams in the Austin regional has earned a reputation for winning a huge number of blowout games, the other has earned attention for its ability to grind out the close ones.

And after Florida kept it up by pulling away from Minnesota in the first game, Miami — arguably college basketball’s biggest surprise team this season — held true to form by fending off a feisty Illinois squad for a tight 63-59 win that sent the Hurricanes to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2000.

“We have been in this situation before,” said Miami guard Trey McKinney Jones. “We know when to stick together. It happened in numerous games in the ACC Tournament. We had a few hiccups, but we just believe in each other. There was no point in the game that I think we were worried. We just stayed confident and finished the game.”

At no point were the No. 2 seed Hurricanes (29-6) worried? The No. 7 seed Illini (23-13) had a one-point lead with just about a minute left, with the raucous crowd clearly pulling more for the team from Urbana-Champaign.

“This is what we live for, and we have done this time and time again,” said Miami forward/center Julian Gamble. “We are a veteran team and we have a veteran coach. We were poised in that situation, as calm as you possibly could have been.”

Miami coach Jim Larranaga’s squad certainly didn’t seem rattled when Hurricane guard Shane Larkin canned a tremendous three-pointer, putting the Hurricanes up two and placing the pressure squarely back on the Illini’s shoulders.

“Kenny [Kadji] set a high ball screen, and they had been staying with me the whole game … and tried to make me give up the ball,” Larkin said. “And the guard actually got back to me and I just tried to make a move to the basket.

“He cut me off, so I just stepped back and shot the three. And it went in.”

The end was not without controversy. After Illinois guard D.J. Richardson missed a three-pointer of his own with 43 seconds left, it appeared that the rebound went out of bounds off Kadji, though officials ruled that the ball last touched an Illinois player. The play wound up being huge. Illinois was forced to foul and Miami closed out the game by making 6-of-6 free throws. The Illini never again had the ball while down less than two possessions.

After the game, Illinois coach John Groce said he had two thoughts about the play.

“One, I thought the officiating Friday and today was tremendous,” Groce said. “These are the best of the best. I thought they did a good job, as you saw.

“My second thought is: you saw the same video that I did,” Groce said. “Those guys did a good job though … 50/50 calls are hard sometimes.”

For his part, Kadji, who scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds, said he wasn’t sure who touched the ball last.

“I don’t know,” Kadji said. “It was so many hands, you know, I don’t know who touched it last. I just tried to make a play on the ball and everybody was getting out there and there was a couple hands. So I really don’t know.”

So much of the game was back-and-forth, with Miami appearing to wrest control taking a seven-point lead with 8:19 after Rion Brown, Miami’s leading scorer for the game with 21 points off the bench, hit back-to-back three-pointers.

“Different players step up on any given night,” McKinney Jones said. “I had the hot hand in the ACC Championship Game. Shane was finding me. This game, Rion had the hot hand and Shane was finding him and he was knocking them down. He was very big for us.”

But Illinois didn’t quit. Aided by two Brandon Paul three-pointers, the Illini went on a 15-6 run of their own, taking a 54-52 lead when Paul dunked the ball with 3:22 left. The Illini still led by one at 55-54 when Larkin made his three-pointer. Larkin finished the game with 17 points and five assists while playing every one of the game’s 40 minutes. Paul led the Illini with 18 points in the loss, while Nnanna Egwu had 12 points and 12 rebounds.

“Credit to Miami for making plays,” said Illinois guard Tyler Griffey, who scored 12 off the bench. “We had the opportunities there, we just didn’t convert enough of them. They’re a good team and we just couldn’t get stops down the stretch.”

Two Florida teams emerged from the eight-team pod played in Austin, with the Gators beating Minnesota 78-64 earlier in the day. And when added to upstart Florida Gulf Coast, winner of its matchup with San Diego State in Philadelphia, the Sunshine State has three teams left standing in the Sweet 16.

“There’s not only a lot of good college basketball being played in the state, but a lot of good high school basketball in this state,” Larranaga said.

The Hurricanes have come a long way since starting 8-3 in this first 11 games (with a 12-point loss at Florida Gulf Coast), going 21-3 since, winning both the ACC and the ACC Tournament and scrapping into the Sweet 16 against Marquette in a matchup between the East Region’s No. 2 and 3 seeds.

“They’re a really good basketball team,” Groce said. “You don’t win their league and their tournament championship unless you’ve got good players and you’re well-coached and you play well.”

That trio of factors makes Miami a dangerous team in the East, the only region with all four top teams still intact.

“Words can’t describe it,”Gamble said. “It is the first time for our school since the year 2000 [to make the Sweet 16]. To be going with this group of guys and continue with this dream season of sorts is really hard to put into words right now. We are really excited about the opportunity.”